Michel Barnier. Picture: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR
Michel Barnier. Picture: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR

Brussels — Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned member states on Thursday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s demands to change Britain’s withdrawal agreement were unacceptable.

“PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council,” Michel Barnier wrote in an e-mail to EU ambassadors.

Earlier, in his first appearance before the House of Commons as prime minister, Johnson had used the same word, “unacceptable”, to describe the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed by his predecessor.

In particular, he denounced the “backstop”, a mechanism in the agreement to keep Britain in the EU customs union until a future trade agreement is reached to keep the Irish border open.

‘Combative’ tone

Barnier, in his message to the other 27 member states, noted the “combative” tone of Johnson’s speech, but noted that he has no mandate from the 27 EU leaders to renegotiate the deal.

And he warned that Johnson’s decision to focus Britain’s efforts on planning for a “no-deal” Brexit on October 31 could be an attempt “to heap pressure on the unity of the EU27”.

 “No deal will never be the EU’s choice, but we all have to be ready for all scenarios,” Barnier wrote.

Barnier also urged EU members to keep an eye on domestic British opposition to Johnson’s hardline position.

“I note also the many strong reactions to the speech in the House of Commons. In this context we must follow carefully the further political and economic reactions and developments in the UK following this speech,” he wrote. “In any case, what remains essential on our side is to remain calm, stick to our principles and guidelines and show solidarity and unity of the 27.”

In a telephone call later on Thursday, Johnson  told European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that the Northern Irish backstop must be abolished. He also said the withdrawal agreement reached between former British prime minister Theresa May and the EU would not pass parliament in its current form, a spokesman said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar — his heavily trade-dependent nation standing to lose most from a messy EU-UK split — reiterated on Thursday his call for compromise.

“I hope that the new UK prime minister hasn’t chosen no deal,” he said.

Johnson will have the backing of his governing Conservative party but not the nation in his first days in office. He beat the now-former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt by a two-to-one margin in a vote held by fewer than 160,000 paying members of the Conservatives. But a YouGov survey found his approval rating in Britain as a whole at just 31%..